The Benefits & Drawbacks of Pali

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The Benefits & Drawbacks of Pali

Postby danieLion » Thu Apr 04, 2013 8:49 pm

A little Pali can be useful, but knowing Pali well is not necessary to practice dhamma or mindfulness and is usually a waste of effort. It's generally better to use that energy on examining direct experience.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby polarbuddha101 » Thu Apr 04, 2013 9:15 pm

I would agree that learning a bunch of Pali is unnecessary to progress down the path but I wouldn't call it a waste of effort. Knowing Pali well gives you a more well rounded perspective on what the buddha taught whereas when reading translations you're inevitably going to miss some of the meaning. The key is proper time management so that you don't spend so much time learning Pali that your practice suffers.

:namaste:
"I don't envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, leads to great benefit."

"I don't envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about such suffering & stress as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about suffering & stress."
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby danieLion » Thu Apr 04, 2013 9:25 pm

polarbuddha101 wrote:Knowing Pali well gives you a more well rounded perspective on what the buddha taught whereas when reading translations you're inevitably going to miss some of the meaning.

Pali itself is a translation of the Buddhavacana; and as Wittgenstein taught us, "The meaning of a word is its use in the language" (the language being the one the current speakers are using).
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Fri Apr 05, 2013 12:13 am

danieLion wrote:Pali itself is a translation of the Buddhavacana; and as Wittgenstein taught us, "The meaning of a word is its use in the language" (the language being the one the current speakers are using).

More accurately, as Wittgenstein theorized.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby polarbuddha101 » Fri Apr 05, 2013 12:30 am

danieLion wrote:
polarbuddha101 wrote:Knowing Pali well gives you a more well rounded perspective on what the buddha taught whereas when reading translations you're inevitably going to miss some of the meaning.

Pali itself is a translation of the Buddhavacana; and as Wittgenstein taught us, "The meaning of a word is its use in the language" (the language being the one the current speakers are using).


1) It isn't accurate to say that Pali is a translation of the Buddhavacana. Pali is a language, and it is a language that is very closely related to the dialect that the Buddha actually spoke (and perhaps the Buddha did know Pali) and thus the conceptual framework that Pali is based upon is very closely related to the conceptual framework that the Buddha's dialect was based upon.

2) The meaning of a word is its use in the language that it was used in, what the Buddha meant by sati is not going to correspond exactly to what people commonly mean when they use the word mindfulness. Since we are trying to understand what the Buddha actually taught, it helps to understand the conceptual framework that the Buddha was working with when formulating his words and it is therefore very helpful to learn Pali which is very closely related to the dialect the Buddha actually spoke.

3) Even if the Pali suttas are an oral translation (as opposed to an oral evolution) of some other prakrit language that the Buddha actually spoke in, it makes sense that the Pali translation captures more of the original meaning than the english translation, just as a dutch translation of a german text will carry more of the original meaning than a translation in the Navajo or Hopi languages of north america.

:namaste:
"I don't envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, leads to great benefit."

"I don't envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about such suffering & stress as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about suffering & stress."
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby Mr Man » Fri Apr 05, 2013 12:34 am

Hi danieLion
Do you speak any foreign languages? Concepts can unfold in very different ways in different languages . Language conditions certain ways of thinking. I'm sure new levels of meaning can be found in understanding pali within its now limited context. I would't see pali as a necessity but it would be nice to read sutta in pali.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby SDC » Fri Apr 05, 2013 1:21 am

I'll play...

Were it not for the vagueness of the English translations, I would have no reason to pursue the Pali.

You are very fortunate to not have this issue. Hopefully I'll get there eventually.
Through many of samsara’s births I hasten seeking, finding not the builder of this house - pain is birth again, again. O builder of this house you’re seen, you shall not build a house again, all your beams have given away, rafters of the ridge decayed, mind to the unconditioned gone, exhaustion of craving has it reached.(Dhp - 153, 154)
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby nem » Fri Apr 05, 2013 3:32 am

I've been going through Bhikkhu Bodhi's systematic study of the Majjhima Nikaya. Of course, BB has produced a translation of Majjhima Nikaya that many of us refer to. But even he states in his systematic study of his expansion and revision based on Nanamoli's translation,today known as The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, that some of the Pali words are translated there into English in ways that don't convey the whole meaning. For example "taints" is used to describe āsavas. So, BB talks about them at length.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates āsavas as "fermentations", which is totally confusing to me, in my understanding of the word fermentation. Are we making beer in the mind, or ruminating about something or? :tongue: These are the contexts where the word fermentation is used in American English, where I live. Fermenting beer, fermenting or brewing troubles in the mind. But āsava means none of that. Just look at wikipedia and how many words in English someone took to explain āsava there. Several hundred English words. Now, if I was just reading suttas, I'd pass over fermentations and ignore it, not having any idea what is being spoken of for lack of cultural context that matches up.

I attend weekly dhamma talks, and we never ever get too far into the talk before there is a discussion where a bhante needs to explain a Pali word and all that it means. If I was sitting in the house reading an English translation I'd never learn these things. So..yes there seems to be value in learning Pali so you don't get steered the wrong way by misunderstanding something that is taken out of the cultural context of Pali and translated in a way that doesn't convey the intended meaning.

Also noted, in Ajahn Sumedho's teachings he frequently refers to the fact that we are limited by our cultural frame of reference and our language. Follow that...if we are studying Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation, well we are also getting his translation through the filter of Jung, Freud and all the other things that were steeped into his mind from the culture that he grew up in, and lives in today.

Good point, Mr Man. When I was learning some foreign languages, I found they have concepts that don't even exist in English. For example in Brazilian Portuguese and Japanese. None of the native English speakers that I know, would even want to convey some of the meanings of the words as they exist in these other languages. For example, saudades in Portuguese, means more or less, I am really, really longing to see you, thinking about old times, can't wait to see you again, need to see you. All of that, in one Portuguese word. It is a word that is way too "needy" for people in my culture to want to express. Here in my country, we wouldn't use such a word if we had it. Everyone wants to be independent, and they don't need anyone, aren't that attached to anyone. So, it's all about culture. Pali too, I think, and understanding the religious culture that uses it, in the tradition as practiced in certain parts of Asia.
Last edited by nem on Fri Apr 05, 2013 4:04 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Apr 05, 2013 4:00 am

danieLion wrote:
polarbuddha101 wrote:Knowing Pali well gives you a more well rounded perspective on what the buddha taught whereas when reading translations you're inevitably going to miss some of the meaning.

Pali itself is a translation of the Buddhavacana; and as Wittgenstein taught us, "The meaning of a word is its use in the language" (the language being the one the current speakers are using).
Translation would be a bit of a too strong of a word here. The differnce between what various dialects the Buddha likely spoke and Pali would be somewhat like the differences between Irish Gaelic, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic. A fluent speaker of one could easily enough communicate with the others.

As for Wittgenstein's comment, that is to the point. While we can point to dictionary meanings of a word, it is, indeed, how a word is used that determines its actual meaning within the context of the texts that we are looking at. The can be seen with cognate words such as dhamma used in the Buddhist suttas and how dharma is used by the Hindus in a text such as the Bhagavad Gita.

And we have seen this pointed to at length in the sati thread in the Pali forum. We see sati used in its straight forward dictionary meaning, but we can also see its meaning shaped by it usage to mean:
Gethin: "What is meant, I think, is that sati is understood as a quality of mind that 'stands near' or 'serves' the mind; it watches over the mind. One might say that it is a form of 'presence of mind'." viewtopic.php?f=23&t=4299&start=20#p205548 and viewtopic.php?f=23&t=4299&start=40#p205789


In other words, words within Pali can, and do, carry multiple meanings, and it is the context that will inform us what those meanings are, but that can take work to get at. Adding to that Pali is also a richly idiomatic language, but unlike other richly idiomatic language such as Irish, there are no native speakers we can turn to to help unravel what is meant by what is being said. We rely on those who have learned the language to produce translations for us, and assuming some degree of competence with the basics, the skills can vary wildly from rigidly lexical to an insightful sensitivity to context and nuance.

Do we need to learn Pali? No, but it is worth using multiple translations of a text when available.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby Nyana » Fri Apr 05, 2013 6:11 am

danieLion wrote:A little Pali can be useful, but knowing Pali well is not necessary to practice dhamma or mindfulness and is usually a waste of effort.

Learning Pāli isn't necessary, but if one has the time and inclination it isn't necessarily a waste of effort either.

danieLion wrote:It's generally better to use that energy on examining direct experience.

Without learning the foundational principles of the teachings and the path structure of how to apply the teachings, examining direct experience can lead in any number of directions which may be quite fruitless.

Fortunately, the Buddha's teachings aren't all that hard to learn and understand conceptually. They aren't esoteric and are not embedded in a highly specialized technical or philosophical language. The main potential difficulties are: (i) the teachings are somewhat unsystematically spread across four large Nikāyas (and the oldest parts of the fifth Nikāya); and (ii) some people are unwilling to accept certain parts of the teachings and seek to impose their own novel interpretations.

But now that we have full translations of almost the entire Tipiṭaka and a number of large post-canonical treatises, there's no pressing need to understand Pāli in order to learn the foundational principles and the path structure of how to apply the teachings. And in addition to this, we also have access to a fairly large number of modern studies, commentaries, dhamma talks, etc., primarily in English or English translation.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby Ben » Fri Apr 05, 2013 6:29 am

Ñāṇa wrote:
danieLion wrote:A little Pali can be useful, but knowing Pali well is not necessary to practice dhamma or mindfulness and is usually a waste of effort.

Learning Pāli isn't necessary, but if one has the time and inclination it isn't necessarily a waste of effort either.


This is my understanding as well, from talking to pali scholars and observing those who have developed a depth of practice that is informed, in part, by an intimate knowledge of the language.
kind regards,

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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby reflection » Fri Apr 05, 2013 7:47 am

For some it may be useful, for others more like a distraction. There are people who think knowing the scriptures is knowing the Dhamma. They seem to think intellectual knowledge is the same as -or a part of- wisdom. I'd say that is something to be careful for when studying the suttas in pali. Because of course, it's not like that. Someone who didn't read any sutta in his life in whatever language, may have more wisdom than one who can translate them all.

It's also funny how people with a lot of knowledge about pali still come up with very different interpretations. So knowing pali is not a guaranteed way of coming to a better understanding of what the Buddha taught, which is beyond words.

But of course it can be useful for reasons already stated. Myself, I'm very grateful for people who took the effort to study the language and share their knowledge, but I don't see myself doing the same.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby manas » Fri Apr 05, 2013 10:41 am

Although only a beginner in the study of Pali, I can vouch for it's usefulness in coming to a clearer understanding of the meaning and intent of the suttas. Even at this early stage, it is helping me greatly in clearing up doubts. I highly recommend it's study, to whatever extent one is able to or wishes. Although not essential, it is highly beneficial, ime.

:anjali:
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby m0rl0ck » Fri Apr 05, 2013 10:59 am

danieLion wrote:A little Pali can be useful, but knowing Pali well is not necessary to practice dhamma or mindfulness and is usually a waste of effort. It's generally better to use that energy on examining direct experience.


:goodpost:

English is a very versatile language, for those few concepts that cant be expressed well and tersely in english, ok, use pali or whatever the native language of the jargon.
Unless the object is not to convey meaning.
"Even if you've read the whole Canon and can remember lots of teachings; even if you can explain them in poignant ways, with lots of people to respect you; even if you build a lot of monastery buildings, or can explain inconstancy, stress, and not-self in the most detailed fashion ... The only thing that serves your own true purpose is release from suffering.

"And you'll be able to gain release from suffering only when you know the one mind."

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai ... eleft.html
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby daverupa » Fri Apr 05, 2013 11:27 am

I have found a study of Pali useful with respect to some knotty phrases with differing translations & clarifying some things which seem easily lost in translation (e.g. "...secluded from sensuality" v. "...sensual pleasures" & distinguishing vinnana, mano, and citta where "mind" and other blanket terms can obscure the differentiation).

It has also contributed to my connotative understanding of certain terms, such as nimitta, helping to prevent certain misunderstandings.

Finally, it has helped to highlight the presence of at least a few significant editorial fingerprints in the Nikayas, such as that which marks the mundane/supramundane distinction, which is very interesting.

All of this has been a great boon.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby Alex123 » Fri Apr 05, 2013 12:51 pm

danieLion wrote:A little Pali can be useful, but knowing Pali well is not necessary to practice dhamma or mindfulness and is usually a waste of effort. It's generally better to use that energy on examining direct experience.


You are right. Did Buddha spoke Pali? Did he always use pali when speaking to anyone from any republic? Did everyone always speak Pali to Buddha?
Considering the diversity of languages and dialect in territory that we call India... I think the answer is obvious.

Also, how do we know that translations of certain keywords (such as anatta) into English is correct? Please check my post.

Also, even though the translation can technically be correct, how do we know the exact sense that Buddha used the word that he did? He lived in ancient India 5th Century BC. Their culture was very different from today. Words may have had alternative or other meanings for the culture that He lived in.
I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care."
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby Buckwheat » Fri Apr 05, 2013 2:53 pm

nem wrote:Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates āsavas as "fermentations", which is totally confusing to me, in my understanding of the word fermentation. Are we making beer in the mind, or ruminating about something or? :tongue: These are the contexts where the word fermentation is used in American English, where I live. Fermenting beer, fermenting or brewing troubles in the mind. But āsava means none of that. Just look at wikipedia and how many words in English someone took to explain āsava there. Several hundred English words. Now, if I was just reading suttas, I'd pass over fermentations and ignore it, not having any idea what is being spoken of for lack of cultural context that matches up.

Dictionary wrote:fer·men·ta·tion (fûrmn-tshn, -mn-) n.
1.a. The anaerobic conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol by yeast.
b. Any of a group of chemical reactions induced by living or nonliving ferments that split complex organic compounds into relatively simple substances.
2. Unrest; agitation.

Definition #2 seems to be what Ven Thanissaro is referencing. I disagree with you that "fermentation" is a poor choice. However, I agree with you that asava does not have a single English equivalent. I believe Ven Thanissaro chose fermentation because, as he is process oriented, he is emphasizing that this is an agitation, whereas "taints" sounds more like inherent flaws of character in my mind (self). However, his choice, without further research by the reader, does leaves us ignorant to the fact that this agitation keeps one bound to samsara (so does taints). Translation is indeed a difficult thing, compounded by the fact that many of us only know half the real meanings even of very familiar English words. It seems most words I look up in the dictionary I find a little bit more to the word than I originally thought.

The upshot of this, is no matter if the discussion revolves around Pali or English, when discussing something subtle, like the dhamma, there will always be a detailed discussion of words and meanings.
Disciples, this I declare to you: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration – strive on untiringly for your liberation.

Sotthī hontu nirantaraṃ - May you forever be well.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby danieLion » Sat Apr 06, 2013 4:32 am

manas wrote:Although only a beginner in the study of Pali, I can vouch for it's usefulness in coming to a clearer understanding of the meaning and intent of the suttas.
The suttas don't have meanings or intentions.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby danieLion » Sat Apr 06, 2013 4:36 am

LonesomeYogurt wrote:
danieLion wrote:Pali itself is a translation of the Buddhavacana; and as Wittgenstein taught us, "The meaning of a word is its use in the language" (the language being the one the current speakers are using).

More accurately, as Wittgenstein theorized.

Straw splitting. He taught us theory of language that hasn't yet been bettered.
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Re: The Problem With Pali

Postby danieLion » Sat Apr 06, 2013 4:43 am

polarbuddha101 wrote:I would agree that learning a bunch of Pali is unnecessary to progress down the path but I wouldn't call it a waste of effort.
I said "usually."

polarbuddha101 wrote:Knowing Pali well gives you a more well rounded perspective on what the buddha taught...



Compared to what? Do you know "fluent" Pali? Have you read all the translations? You're just repeating an idea you heard without knowing for yourself.

polarbuddha101 wrote:...whereas when reading translations you're inevitably going to miss some of the meaning.
The meaining? Are you saying the texts, Pali or otherwise, have their very own meaning?
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